In the Pursuit of Equity

By Dan Meisel   |   December 21, 2021

I previously wrote in this space about how only recognizing perspectives “for” or “against” an issue can get in the way of understanding and potentially resolving conflicting views. The recently heightened polarity around discussing race and bias in school classrooms is a prime example.

We are seeing advocates frame debates in ways more likely to prompt an argument than a meaningful discussion. Doing so may help motivate voters, but it can be terrible for effective policymaking. See, for example, the widespread confusion caused by legislation addressing Critical Race Theory (CRT) and school board resolutions (as nearby as Paso Robles) about how educators discuss race, gender, and other “controversial” topics.

In the Santa Barbara area, polarity on this issue has arisen around anti-bias education, debates about school resource officers, concerns about mandatory ethnic studies, and questions about the meaning and value of “equity.”

These discussions arise in the context of schools’ efforts to address longstanding racial and ethnic disparities in educational outcomes. Some of those disparities stem from historically unfair policies and practices on school campuses, some from implicit and explicit biases, and some from challenges in meeting the needs of students with limited funding available to address shifting student demographics, lingual diversity, poverty, and other obstacles to positive educational outcomes. Equity is about addressing these disparities and striving to provide all students with access to opportunities and resources they need to succeed. Equitable practices help create diverse and inclusive environments enabling all students to realize their potential.

The Santa Barbara Unified School District commendably has been among the most ambitious local districts in pursuing equity. It instituted anti-bias education for administrators and teachers, broadened curricula to reflect the contributions and experiences of groups represented in its diverse student pool, and mandatory high school ethnic studies courses (even before the passage of the CA Ethnic Studies bill), among many other initiatives. 

Some of these initiatives were spurred by advocacy, leading some parents on both sides of the political spectrum to wonder if the result would look more like advocacy or apolitical education. Parents expressed concern that their children, whom they felt had experienced other forms of oppression, could feel uncomfortable, dismissed, or even blamed in conversations about “intersectionality,” “social justice,” and “privilege.”

Educating and engaging parents can be time consuming, expensive when expertise is needed (as is helpful when discussing race and identity), and emotionally challenging. Their engagement is voluntary and subject to time constraints and other priorities. SBUSD, like other districts around the country, struggled with how to inform parents about the nature and value of its initiatives addressing equity.

In the absence of information, fears about what could happen often overtake efforts to explore and understand what is actually happening. We are seeing this on the national scene as “anti-CRT” advocates spread falsehoods that students are being taught they should personally feel shame or guilt because of their race or sex. Locally, we saw parent fear and frustration compounded by lack of access to information.

The reality is that discussions about race and identity will happen on school campuses regardless of whether others try to prevent it. Some issues involving race are simple and evident even to preschoolers.

The worst way to address these subjects is to not discuss them. The constructive conversation is about how we support our teachers to help our K-12 children, in an age-appropriate and non-political ways, make sense of the disparities they see in the world around them without instilling feelings of guilt or exclusion. Our focus should be on ensuring that teachers are equipped to lead and guide these discussions — to foster the “brave” spaces I mentioned previously that may involve some discomfort but positive outcomes. There may be incidents of students feeling guilt or excluded from conversations, but such incidents can be addressed without preventing conversations about race altogether.

When done well, these conversations provoke inquiry about our identities and how they impact self-perception, about how others’ identities may be more complex than what we perceive, about the benefits of diversity in society, and strategies for communicating across differences. They can and should examine these issues at the macro-level as well to identify systemic causes of racial and other disparities while letting students form their own conclusions about fairness and justice. 

Failing to do so out of fear does actual harm to students who experience the negative impacts of racial and other disparities. Restricting the manner in which our children can even discuss these issues with a teacher compounds the harm.

The good news is that many of our local schools and parents are diving into these more nuanced conversations. With diverse stakeholder committees, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultants, and quality anti-bias program providers (including ADL), they are spending less effort arguing whether discussing race and bias is good or bad, and more effort exploring what makes good initiatives good and bad initiatives bad.

Parents can be constructively supportive by seeking information rather than opinions; by joining conversations about solutions rather than erecting additional obstacles; and by engaging their students in conversations at home. You can ask your school or district what it is doing in these regards. If the answer is “nothing,” you can ask why and invite a conversation that gets beyond “yes” or “no.”

Dan Meisel is Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties office. He previously chaired that office’s Advisory Board as well as a national ADL Task Force on Education Equity.


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